Thursday 17 August 2017

Vincent Hogan: Hartson making most of his second coming

"We'll go into your back, cutting down about 14 inches from the top of your shoulder blade. Then we'll open up the ribcage, use part of one of your ribs to clamp it open, deflate the left lung, feel around for any lesions, cut them off.

Then we'll drill through the ribs and stitch you up from the inside. It should take about seven hours. We'll repeat the process on your right lung a month later, all being well."

He is sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel when, unsolicited, John Hartson pulls a grey, woolly fleece up over his head to reveal a cushioned torso embroidered with tattooists' art.

The gesture startles a quartet of elderly women at a nearby table. Hartson's tattoos are big, brash declarations of loyalty and love, the biggest running across his stomach in four large Gothic letters celebrating the name of his only son, Joni.

He swivels around to reveal two almost perfectly matching scars running in wide arcs from each of his shoulder blades.

We have already observed the faint, circular outline beneath his Adam's Apple left by a tracheotomy and the thumb-sized dent in his skull.

"I think nothing of my scars really," he smiles, oblivious to the suspended consumption of tea and scones around him.

Hartson sits back down. What is the odd stare to a man who has come back from the other side?

His cancer, he says, has been "in remission" for 18 months now. They tell him that you must get to five years without bad news before being officially given the all-clear. Even then, he suspects, there will always be an asterisk.

"I think as a cancer sufferer, survivor, whatever you want to call it, you don't ever feel that you're out," he says impassively.

It is Wednesday night in Dublin and, when we finish, he will head for Temple Bar and the promise of "four or five" pints of Guinness with friends.

But Hartson will be back in his hotel room by 10.30 at the latest and, on Thursday morning, he plans to sidestep the breakfast buffet.

He weighs a healthy 17st 2lbs now and finds triumph in simple pleasures. Last week, he went Christmas shopping with wife Sarah in London and remembers a moment standing in Harrods being almost overcome with a sense of good fortune. As an aside, he mentions that he hasn't had a bet in nine months and that Sarah controls the purse strings.

For maybe the first time in his life, John Hartson likes the man in the mirror.

He says he expected to die. Actually, at one point, he wanted to. For years, he had ignored the lumps in his testicles and then, within two days of the cancer diagnosis, blinding headaches were confirmed as a symptom of it having spread to his lungs and brain.

The surgeons didn't sugar-coat the gravity of their work to his father. "Mr Hartson," they said, "we're in the business of just trying to buy your son whatever time we can."

In a single month, his weight plummeted from 19st to 14. One night, James -- his older brother -- came to visit and Hartson asked him to go and fetch his kids.

"James, I've had enough of fighting" he said. "I think I'll go tonight."

From a thick fog, that memory still comes to him with crystal clarity. "I just felt ... pretty much ... gone," he reflects now. "I was so low and I was exhausted. You're tied to this machine, six or seven wires coming out of you.

"I was fed up being rushed down for scans, rushed down for bloods. I could do nothing, couldn't even go to the toilet on my own. There's a catheter in the bed, I've got to pee into this big bag. Every three hours, I've to call the nurse because the bag is filling up.

strength

"I'm getting pains in my stomach, but I haven't the strength to get up. If I get out of bed, I'll just fall straight down. There's a bedpan. I remember these really smart, fit nurses shoving a bedpan under my backside.

"I go for a number two on the bedpan and they're wiping my a**e. I know they're used to it because they're nurses. Really nice girls as well. Helpful.

"But it's degrading. I mean, 18 months ago, I was scoring goals. Now I'm reduced to this ... nothing."

In a peculiar way, it all makes perfect sense now. He blames himself, you see.

One area not explored in his new book 'Please Don't Go' is the complex territory of karma. You put it to him that the pages seem remarkably free of anger, or even a sliver of self-pity, and Hartson puts it down to his suspicion that a man reaps what he himself has sown.

"Maybe it's because I expected it," he says candidly. "Because I was out of control so much in terms of my eating, my lifestyle, my weight, financially. Before I became ill, I was really running riot. I was gambling, I was womanising.

"I'd see myself on television and be embarrassed I looked so heavy. My divorce had just come through and, having finished playing, the big money had stopped coming in. Something had to happen. I just feel that the cancer was brought on by my ridiculously wild lifestyle.

"Now I'm not saying I was kipping on park benches, but I wasn't far from that. I was very deceitful, doing things money-wise I shouldn't have been doing. So, in a perverse way, the cancer was good for me, if that makes any sense. Because it gave me a second chance.

"Look. I was never rock-star wild. I was a professional footballer for God's sake. There have been wilder footballers than me in their time. I never did drugs, I wasn't a massive boozer, I've been a non-smoker all my life.

"But I was just a little out of control in terms of my gambling, my weight, my personal issues."

His last port of call as a footballer was West Bromwich Albion. Celtic agreed to the deal without even consulting him. He accepted it, if only because a new life in Birmingham would bring him closer to Rebecca and Joni, the two kids from his first marriage.

But his gambling fed a deep-set guilt and that guilt was making him comfort eat. By the time West Brom cut him adrift, the familiar terrace chant of "you fat b*****d" had acquired a starkly truthful ring. Hartson weighed almost 19st.

He blames gambling for all the blackness in his life.

Even growing up in Swansea, he knew it had a hold on him. At 15, he was earning £33 a shift for working in a nightclub and would take his pay packet straight across the road to a 24-hour Rileys, promptly losing it in the fruit machines.

He was almost sacked by Luton, his first professional club, for stealing from the family he was lodging with in a desperate need to feed his addiction.

Even when Arsenal made him the most expensive teenager in British football history with a £2.5m transfer deal, Hartson fretted about the road ahead. He recalls presenting himself at a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting in St Albans, staying for half an hour, then deciding it wasn't quite his cup of tea.

Why? "I didn't want to stop," he sighs impassively.

Big money spawned big temptation. "I hated myself," says Hartson. "A gambler will tell you that there's no worse feeling than losing your money and thinking what else you could have done with it. I'm talking a couple of grand, more even.

Gambler

"I'd put five grand on a horse, easy. I earned £30,000 a week at Celtic, I was clearing £67,000 a month. I should now be living in a £4m house, paid for. We've still got a £500,000 house, paid for. We've got two nice cars, we go on nice holidays.

"But I should have a lot more. I mean, I never felt the need to go into The Priory and, without sounding too cocksure, I earned that money. I didn't blow anybody else's. Nobody went without. I bought my first wife a beautiful house and I bought my parents one as well. I have a good heart.

"But the first thing you've got to do with an addiction is admit it yourself. The penny's got to drop at some stage and it didn't drop with me until I got cancer. I was running wild, I was out of control. My dad said it to me on the phone one day.

"'John, you're out of f*****g control son!' We had a bit of a war.

"I put the phone down. 'He's talking s**t!' I said to my mate. But my dad was spot on. He knows me better than I know myself. I had a beautiful wife and three fabulous children, didn't matter. I had a big house, money in my pocket, didn't matter.

"Because I wasn't prepared to change my ways. I was destructing."

He understands the stereotype people might have of him. You can still access on YouTube that extraordinarily violent image of him kicking his West Ham team-mate, Eyal Berkovic, in the face during a training ground row. Far more than any of the tattoos, that single moment will forever mark him like a branding iron.

"You know that was 15 years ago," he says sadly. "It's something I will always regret, obviously. But I was 20 years old. I'm 35 now. I've played 400 games since then, lifted trophies. I've played 50 times for my country since then.

"People still tend to bring it up and that's fine. It's part of my history, part of my make-up. That was me.

"But I'd like people to know that I had a wonderful upbringing in a Swansea council estate. The police never ever came to our door.

"My dad would have leathered my a**e if they ever did. I was a good boy growing up.

"A bit boisterous maybe, got into a bit of trouble for bobby-knocking (knocking on doors and running away). That's all. We never had a lot, but we had a lot of love.

"I was kissing my dad goodnight when I was going to bed at 14!"

They pumped 73 bags of chemo into his body over three months of desperate fire-fighting and he eventually left hospital, shuffling behind a Zimmer frame, looking "grotesquely thin".

Sarah was heavily pregnant with little Stephanie through the worst of it and hindsight tells him now that, if anything kept him alive, it was a desperation to see the new baby.

His family, he stresses, faced the biggest ordeal. "It was horrendous for them," he says. "They actually went through far more than me. Because, I was on a slab, doing nothing. I couldn't even speak. I had a tube down my throat and they were feeding me through a drip for six weeks.

"I had wires coming out my nose and my head too. To communicate, I'd type words into this electronic thing that would then speak for me through a microphone.

Operations

The operations were a doddle because the drugs were protecting me from reality. I thought night was day and day was night.

"I rang my wife at four one morning, asking where she was. She'd been in for 15 hours the day before, but I'm accusing her of having an affair with a Filipino nurse. One night, I jumped out of bed, pushed the nurse out of the way and pulled all the wires out.

"So my family are there seeing their beloved John, husband and son, reduced to this thing on a bed. And a year and a half before, I was playing Champions League for Celtic!"

The cancer markers in his blood have gone from a reading of 200,000 to zero. He has applied for the vacant manager's job in Wales, having secured the requisite coaching badges

Media work keeps pouring in. The goodwill people now show for John Hartson is a source of endless wonder to him.

The book, 'Please don't Go', is a diary of his sickness, written with the help of Sarah and his sister, Victoria. He won't profit from any sales, for that was never his motivation.

He hopes simply that it might heighten awareness of testicular cancer among young men, as is the purpose of the John Hartson Foundation.

Happiness now comes to him from simple places. A blue sky. Sea air. Climbing a stairs unaided.

Every morning, just after six, he wakes to Stephanie's cries. "It's a wonderful sound," John Hartson smiles.

Who could doubt it?

Irish Independent

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